The Alcove

What’s Voting All About?

Voting should not be an act of private faith, but rather one of public duty.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged ElectionsHillary Clinton

An important question has been prompted by younger progressives this election cycle: Why should they support Hillary Clinton? Most who are raising this question were engaged in the Bernie campaign and were troubled by the leaked emails showing that the DNC leadership preferred Hillary over their candidate (we all knew that, the emails just confirmed it). Many also think of Hillary Clinton as too centrist for their left-leaning politics. For these reasons, some younger progressives seem to be considering leaving the presidential box blank or voting for the Green Party. But, in many places, including where I live (Ohio), the stakes this year are very high.

I understand trepidation about Hillary Clinton. Having worked hard on Obama’s primary in 2008, my mind drifts back to those days. I inevitably wind up remembering how Hillary campaigned as a gun lover of sorts, that Bill Clinton (who just  wouldn’t take a backseat) compared Obama to Jesse Jackson (how inaccurate), while Hillary compared Obama to Martin Luther King Jr. and herself to Lyndon B. Johnson, and that, worst of all, Mark Penn, just one of too many overpaid advisors, was writing these stupid memos to Hillary about how Obama’s biography—Kenyan father, childhood in Hawaii—provided him with “limited” relation “to basic American values and culture.” Penn’s memo wasn’t the basis of today’s ugly birtherism, as much as I think Trump suggested (I no longer understand much of what he says), but it sure didn’t give me much faith in Hillary’s campaign or in her core belief system. What I see today is a very different Hillary than the 2008 version, but that just prompts suspicion about shapeshifting as much as it does any hope that her 2016, progressive re-do is genuine.

However, Hillary aside, the bigger question here should really be: What is a vote truly for? I was motivated to consider this recently, after a few recent conversations with millennial voters, and in response to an article that I read in the small socialist magazine In These Times.

But, first, those conversations. Over a few beers, a young man who will go unnamed (but, really, there are many just like him) told me that he wasn’t sure if he would vote for Hillary Clinton. I said I thought such a move—understand this conversation took place in a small college town in Ohio—was stupid, and that, knowing him to be a person of the left (a self-proclaimed “socialist”), he would be helping Donald Trump in the long run. He said he had heard the “lesser of two evils” argument before but thought his vote should still be something more than that. What struck me about this interaction was his use of the language of self-expression—I want my vote to be a statement, he kept riffing. He wanted it to justify his thinking.

It dawned on me, at that point, that he saw voting as a form of personal self-expression and not a public choice. It was supposed to make him feel good, to be therapeutic. Strange, I thought, how a person usually so critical of America’s consumer culture—for its waste, unsustainability, and manipulative advertising techniques—was using what sounded like consumer logic to make this most important decision.

I spoke to this young man about working on numerous political campaigns. I talked about the recurring statement I would hear when knocking on the doors of registered voters. I would ask, “Do you know who you’re voting for?” All too often, that person would say, “I won’t tell you that—it’s private.” And what I told my young friend was that those people who said that didn’t understand an important principle: that voting is not an act of private faith, but one of public choice. The act of pulling a crank or filling in a circle with a pen doesn’t have anything to do with your own self-worth or good feeling or private belief system, but is rather a choice with huge public ramifications that others—that “public” that we are all part of by simple virtue of being citizens—will live with for four years (or two or six). It struck me that these people had no idea what voting is really about. And that, too, was the problem with the young man I was drinking with at the bar.

As I mentioned, this young man was a socialist, and it was among socialists that I’ve often heard the strongest anti-voting sentiment. Many have told me they see it as “revolutionary” act to abstain from casting a ballot. So imagine my surprise when I fell upon one of the best and most well-reasoned arguments for voting for Hillary in the pages of the socialist publication In These Times.

Thomas Geoghegan essentially helps fill out the argument I was trying to make to the young man in the bar about voting as a public choice with very public ramifications. Geoghegan points out that voting for Hillary is about much more than voting for the candidate herself; it is also about voting for “literally thousands of appointees.” And it’s “likely that many of these appointees will be Bernie voters” who can, behind the scenes, so to speak, shape public policy, even if we don’t hear from them at press conferences. Geoghegan adds, “The odd thing is, if you want the Left to come back, you have to put the center-left in power.” You need something, he reasons, that you can push on to move things to the left—a Trump Administration would have no, excuse the term, “pushability.” And Geoghegan ends with a potentially ironic twist. If a “Green vote indirectly put the GOP in power, it is the end of the Paris Accords on Global Warming.” An irrefutable argument, which also takes us back to the larger one at hand: that voting is something with big public consequences (in this case even global ones). So, once again, we should not conceive of our upcoming vote as something that makes us feel good in that polling booth, but as something that will shape our public world for years to come.

That progressives hotly debate the purpose of voting is a good thing, I suppose. But I worry that, for some, it’s become harder and harder to grasp the idea of the “public” in the first place. After all, our society champions the pleasures of consumerism, the glories of instantaneous purchases on Amazon or making impulsive statements on Twitter or adding another item to our personalized Facebook account. The idea that our actions intermingle with others’ in something that has been loosely termed “the public sphere” is an idea that feels harder to articulate (though the academic in me would like to point out that philosophers like John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, and Jurgen Habermas have made this case eloquently throughout the twentieth century). In other words, we think of ourselves, today perhaps more than ever, as a nation of individuals inhabiting private spaces and making private choices in isolation. Voting should serve as an important reminder, however, that we also inhabit this public sphere, which we are continuously helping to shape, whether we are pulling the crank or filling in the bubble.

Read more about ElectionsHillary Clinton

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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